The beaten track: Chile’s jaw-dropping backpacker trail

As more and more tourists flock to Chile, a veritable pilgrimage route from north to south has emerged, taking hardy travelers through the region’s most spectacular landscapes. This may not be the road less traveled, but it’s magnificent nonetheless.

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The southern nations of Latin America are now among the world’s most popular destinations for backpackers, and, though far from undiscovered, Chile’s backpacker trail has some of the very best. Travel through some of the continent’s most iconic landscapes, with a welcoming network of fellow travelers for late nights and shared memories along the way. From north to south, here’s our itinerary along Chile’s backpacker trail.

Parque Nacional Lauca: In the far northeastern corner of Chile, just inland from the border town of Arica, this park’s celebrated lagoons, volcanoes and desertscapes make it an ideal introduction to the magnificently alien atmosphere of the altiplano.

Iquique: One of the north’s most important coastal cities, and well-loved by backpackers for its sandy beaches and laidback atmosphere. Just outside, the ghost towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura are a popular day trip.

San Pedro de Atacama: Whether traveling south from the far north, or entering Chile from Bolivia or Argentina, San Pedro is on just about everyone’s itinerary. Smack dab in the middle of some of the region’s most beautiful altiplano landscapes, this adobe oasis town serves as a jumping off point for Tatio Geysers, the Valle de la Luna and the Atacama Salt Flat.

La Serena: Backpackers are known for stomaching long bus rides, and the roughly 17-hour trip from Calama (near San Pedro) to coastal La Serena is a doosey. Thankfully, Chile’s comfortable and efficient inter-regional buses make it feasible, and La Serena’s singular colonial center is more than worth the trip. The second-oldest city in Chile, La Serena has by far the best-preserved historic center in the country, and with its share of upmarket nightspots and bright sandy beaches.

Elqui Valley: Just inland from La Serena, the Elqui Valley is home to the clearest skies on earth and center of Chile’s pisco production. Driving from the valley mouth deep into the high Andes, you’ll pass vineyard-covered hills, a stunning man-made lake, the home of Chile’s first Nobel Laureate, Gabriela Mistral, and arrive at some of the world’s most advanced observatories.

Santiago, Valparaíso, Viña del Mar: However you cut it, a stop in Chile’s central cities is an unmissable, cosmopolitan break between the arid north and the remote, rugged south. Home to the majority of the national population, Santiago also has its best restaurants, performance spaces, museums, galleries, nightclubs and bars. Events like the weekly Wednesday party known as Miércoles Po are specifically designed to show foreign visitors a good time, while nightclubs like Bellavista’s Bar Constitución are well loved amongst backpackers looking for a typically late Santiago night.

Valparaíso’s hills, harbor and street art have long established it as Chile’s bohemian heart, with a great music scene, good food and inexpensive watering holes up and down the steep streets. The posh city of Viña del Mar just 15 minutes up the coast provides ample beaches and nightlife.

Pichilemu: The number one stop for surfers along Chile’s extensive Pacific coast, this resort town about four hours from Santiago is divided into two separate beaches. Crowds gather along La Puntilla beach north of the headland, where swimming and surfing are possible. For a quieter, more picturesque spot, try the southern beach, Playa Infiernillo.

Pucón and Lake Villarrica: Torres del Paine aside, Pucón may be the biggest tourist draw this side of San Pedro. Chile’s capital for thrill seekers and outdoorsy types, the lakeside town sits in front of Villarrica Volcano, one of the most beautiful—not to mention active—volcanoes in all of Chile. In Villarrica Park enjoy the natural beauty of native forests and mountains, or try watersports on the lake and the vibrant nightlife that springs up wherever travelers congregate.

Puerto Varas: Between Pucón and Puerto Montt (jumping off point for the Navimag Ferry trip), many travelers swing by this quaint town on the southern shore of Lake Llanquihue for a taste of Chile’s German heritage. In the shadow of Osorno Volcano, this is the spot to snack on German pastries, known locally as kuchen, and enjoy the one of Chile’s most peaceful, pastoral landscapes.

Chiloé: Just about everyone plans to reach Chiloé, though many don’t have the opportunity to stop here. UNESCO World Heritage churches, shingled houses on stilts, quiet countryside and entirely unique folk traditions make Chile’s largest island one of its most singular destinations. The main town of Castro is the primary jumping off point for visitors and home to the majority of the hostels.

Navimag Ferry: With road access to the far south impossible without passing through Argentina, Navimag Ferry’s four day trip through the fjords and canals of Patagonia’s Parque Bernardo O’Higgins is the most popular route between the Lakes District and Torres del Paine National Park. This hostel-on-the-water brings travelers together passing through some of the most remote landscapes in southern Chile.

Torres del Paine: Chile’s pièce de résistance, Torres del Paine National Park has it all: a spectacular, craggy massif, lakes, glaciers, wildlife, rivers, fields and, like any good backpacker destination, fantastic infrastructure and fellow travelers along the Park’s most popular circuits. This means an exhausting day of spectacular hiking can easily be followed with a cold beer and relaxing night.